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A Series of Unfortunate Events Leads to Top Contenders DNF’ing at UTMB

It’s hard to point to one thing that took out so many top contenders, much of it came down to a series of unfortunate events.

The Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix, France has always been a tough nut to crack for American men, but this year, hopes were high. Over the years, American women have fared better, having left their mark on top of the race five times. The 2018 version, however, saw all podium spots void of Americans.

It’s hard to point to one thing in particular that took out so many top contenders. The weather, while wet at the start and a bit cold in the mountains, wasn’t extreme. Fitness levels were high, experience was deep and everyone was expecting a solid fight among the top contenders. Much of it came down to a series of unfortunate events.

Of the 2,500 runners that attempted the 171K race this past weekend, 582 athletes DNF’d including some of ultrarunning’s most notable superstars. On the men’s side, most of the focus was on a potential showdown between Spain’s Kilian Jornet and America’s Jim Walmsley. But Americans Tim Tollefson, Alex Nichols and Zach Miller were also ready to put in winning efforts.

From the outset, circumstances were wonky—Nichols took a hard spill leaving the starting line and had to abandon early. Jornet received a bee sting to his foot three hours before the gun and experienced an allergic reaction, leading to a surprising DNF after spending some time near the front. Walmsley seemed poised for a good run from the start, taking the race out hard and leading for the first 20 miles or so. It wasn’t long, however, before Walmsley began slowing, clearly off his normal game.

Tollefson came into the race off two previous third-place finishes and was primed for a good day. Just after the 50k checkpoint, where he was running with eventual winner Xavier Thévenard, his foot slipped on a stream rock. “I popped up and kept running but could feel blood running down my leg,” said Tollefson. “I wrapped it and at the next aid station, the medical team wanted me to abandon and get stitches.”

Convincing the med team to let him continue, Tollefson ran on, pursuing Thévenard. “When the adrenaline wore off, I was in a lot of pain,” he shared. “I was actually ascending really well, but I couldn’t run the downhills; was making small mistakes with my nutrition, and I saw the writing on the wall.”

In all, top contenders Walmsley, Jornet, Tollefson, Miller, Luis Alberto Hernando, Alex Nichols and Scotty Hawker all took DNFs. France’s Thévenard finished in first with a time of 20:44:16, making this his third time winning the event (2013, 2015). Thévenard sat in the top 10 for around much of the race and slowly made his move into the lead at around 124km in Champex-Lac. Following behind him was Robert Hajnal of Romania with a time of 21:31:37 and Spaniard Jordi Gamito took third in 21:57:01.

While the men struggled to remain in the race, the women managed the day in better shape, although there were still a number of drops from top contenders. Coming out on top was Italy’s Francesca Canepa, becoming the first runner from her country to win at UTMB with a time of 26:03:48. Second place went to Spain’s Uxue Fraile Azpeitia with a time of 26:08:07 and France’s Jocelyne Pauly captured third in 26:15:11. All three battled with a constantly-moving group of top 10 women throughout the race, making for an exciting finish.

America’s Magdalena Lewy-Boulet shared some of Hoka One One teammate Tollefson’s bad luck. Another heavy favorite coming into the race, Lewy-Boulet started out strong and in the lead. “I was feeling great,” she said, “I had good energy, I felt like I had a nice bounce in my stride, and most importantly, I was having fun.”

Like her male counterparts, however, Lewy-Boulet was struck down by the mountain gods. “First, I twisted my ankle pretty badly coming down the hill before Les Chapieux,” she said. “It wasn’t long after that, [that] I fell. I went face down and banged my knee and shin, and also fell on my nose and ribcage.” Eventually, Lewy-Boulet could no longer bear weight on her knee and shin, making climbing impossible. She left the race at Lac Combal after a valiant effort.

Two American women did manage to race into the top 10, as Cat Bradley took eighth (27:22:11) and Kaci Lickteig placed 10th (27:31:39). If anything, the 2018 UTMB was a good reminder that regardless of fitness and expectations, the mountain always has the last word.